Legislators have Ignored the State Constitution

By: DJ Bettencourt

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan’s decision to balance her proposed budget and fund the state’s infrastructure needs by assuming revenue generated by an expanded gaming proposal has sparked widespread debate across the Granite State.

While much of that debate has centered on the wisdom of assuming revenue from a source that has not yet been approved by the legislature and is currently illegal in New Hampshire, it has also spawned the first serious contemporary discussion about our infrastructure crisis. That dialogue is long overdue.

I readily admit that infrastructure health is not the most exciting issue. The public only seems to get fired up about roads when they hit those annoying potholes. Yet the economic impact of a sound infrastructure is undeniable. New Hampshire’s infrastructure badly needs improvements to ensure safety, quality and to attract new businesses.

How big is the problem? A recent federal study found our roads are underfunded by $73 million a year and cost taxpayers $323 annually. A 2011 study by Transportation for America found that 372 of New Hampshire’s 2,408 state and municipal bridges were “structurally deficient.” The Interstate 93 widening project is underfunded by $250 million and more than 1,660 miles of state roads are rated in poor condition. Additionally, our roads have a huge commercial impact. $38 billion worth of goods made in New Hampshire annually are transported on our highways.

Like all states, our infrastructure funding is greatly influenced by Washington. We receive approximately $1 billion in federal infrastructure funding. Unfortunately, states are forced to follow antiquated federal policy goals, distribution formulas and guidelines. The results have been inefficiency, delays and many projects never moving forward. But as we will see later, New Hampshire is hardly a total victim of Washington.

To address this infrastructure crisis, New Hampshire legislative Democrats are resorting to their usual modus operandi. Ignoring suffering taxpayers, they want a 15-cent — or 83% — increase in the state gas tax over four years to raise $980 million over ten years. Democrats maintain that only a gas tax increase, which presently raises $123 million, can address our problem.

Can anything save taxpayers from an extra $3 every time they fill up their tank? Yes, but it will take fiscal integrity. New Hampshire raises its infrastructure funds through two sources: the turnpike fund, funded by toll revenue, and the highway trust fund. Under a 1938 amendment to the state Constitution, revenue from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel are dedicated to the state highway trust fund and must be “used exclusively for the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of public highways…including the supervision of traffic.”

So what is the problem? Infrastructure has dedicated funding sources that should produce more than enough revenue, right? Wrong.

Over the past two decades, state budgets proposed by both Democrats and Republicans have diverted funds constitutionally raised for infrastructure. Gov. Hassan continues this misspending in her currently proposed budget. What is the impact? If lawmakers recaptured the six cents per gallon that is currently diverting from the highway trust fund, it would generate more revenue than the proposed gas tax increase.

How is it possible that constitutionally dedicated funds are being misused?

Simple — legislators have ignored the state constitution by using a broad definition of the phrase “including the supervision of traffic.” Under that provision, funds for infrastructure have been spent on non-infrastructure items. In other words, while Granite State motorists were expecting their gas tax dollars to be invested into their roads, a large portion of those funds were actually used for unrelated purposes; and now the politicians are asking them to pay more.

Should some highway trust funds be used to fund state troopers to provide supervision of the highway? Yes, but not more than 26% of the fund. Sadly, had 74% of dedicated highway trust funds over the past twenty years been used to address our infrastructure, the current crisis likely would not exist.

If Gov. Hassan cares about taxpayers and our infrastructure, she should end the tradition of diverting funds out of the highway trust fund for items not directly related to road construction and repairs. More importantly, she should threaten to veto a gas tax increase that will hobble already financially-strained Granite Staters.

 D.J. Bettencourt served as a State Representative in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012 and was the House Majority Leader for the 2011-2012 legislative term. He currently works as a special education academic assistant and is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Salem Animal Rescue League.